AUGUSTA — Residents of a Northern Avenue apartment building destroyed in a massive fire Friday connected Monday with state and local agencies offering housing aid.

The forum was held at Gilbert Elementary School, where many of the children who lost their homes in the Sand Hill neighborhood blaze attend school.

Kristen Swift followed her son Landon, a kindergartner at Gilbert, to the kitchen serving area, where he opted for pizza rather than a burrito. Swift’s 9-month-old daughter was staying temporarily with Swift’s mother-in-law because she had a crib and other items for the baby.

The baby, Sophia, was scratched by glass as Swift climbed out a window to escape the fast-moving blaze that gutted the 18-unit building at 36 Northern Ave. early Friday. Swift had stitches in her leg.

All 23 people in the building at the time of the fire escaped, a few with minor injuries, including Swift’s husband, Matthew Swift. In total, 27 people were left homeless.

“I woke up to the fire alarm,” Swift said. “My husband flew out of bed and ran into the kitchen and saw our front door in flames. I ran back into the room to get the baby.”

Tears filled her eyes as she recounted the experience. “I can’t cry any more,” she said.

The family crowded into Landon’s room when Matthew Swift’s welding kit exploded. There was no time to open a double-locked door, so they broke a window and climbed through it onto a porch and escaped.

As Kristen spoke, her husband made the rounds of the tables where representatives of several agencies offered applications and information.

The community, as well as social service agencies, has been quick to respond.

Gilbert school personnel went with items for the children to the Super 8 Motel where many of the displaced families are staying, including Landon.

Terry Berry of Century 21 Real Estate Alliance in Hallowell brought a new computer to Nate Boothby, 15, whose Cony High School-issued laptop was burned up along with everything else. Boothby said he was moved by Berry’s generosity.

By Monday, Boothby’s facial bandage was gone, exposing the shiny skin of the burn he suffered on the left side of his face. Boothby said he was feeling better, but his doctor recommended he stay out of school for the rest of the semester to give his injured leg time to heal.

“The teachers are willing to work with me” so he wouldn’t get behind, he said.

April Frith was at the housing fair with her mother, uncle, aunt and other family members who also lived in the building.

Frith was out dancing and returned home shortly after the first firetruck arrived at about 2 a.m. She had lived in the building for about a year and was one of a half dozen people who lost cars to the inferno.

That was transportation for her mom and for herself as a way to visit her children who live in Rome.

While she said she was grateful for the forum to help sort out housing needs, she had a larger concern. “Who is going to pay for it?” she asked.

The answer is that money for those displaced will come partly through donations and also through some community and government programs.

Amanda Bartlett, executive director of Augusta Housing Authority, said a one-bedroom apartment typically rents for $650. Seventeen of the building’s 18 units were occupied by a total of 27 people, so finding replacement one-bedroom units would run more than $22,000, and some of the families need larger units.

“We found a lot of landlords who have immediate vacancies,” Bartlett said on Monday, adding that the rents would likely be comparable to what the families had been paying.

Deborah Turcotte, public information manager for MaineHousing, the state housing authority, said 120 landlords added 38 vacant or soon-to-be vacant units to a free rental listing website at www.mainehousingsearch.org after a disaster intervention team began making calls after the fire.

Landlords can indicate whether the units qualify for subsidized housing, whether they are suitable for people with special needs and other information.

In the meantime, the Red Cross paid for three nights at Super 8 for victims, and the United Way of Kennebec Valley gathered enough donations to cover two additional nights.

The Red Barn restaurant is using its website to promote donations. That business, along with Chipotle, Downtown Diner, and Damon’s and Whipper’s Pizza donated food for the families for Monday night’s forum, providing bags to take extras as well.

Even as the displaced tenants seek new housing, an investigation into the cause of the blaze is continuing by the Office of the State Fire Marshal.

“We haven’t come up with a cause yet,” said Sgt. Kenneth Grimes on Monday. “There are two more people that we’re trying to locate.”

Earlier investigators said they needed to interview everyone who had been there, and even then it would be difficult to establish a cause since the building had to be torn down almost immediately.

An investigator met with several people while the fair was taking place.

The building owner, Yvon Doyon, said he too was awaiting the results of the investigation and was grateful everyone was able to escape the blaze. Firefighters attributed that to having two exits for the units and to having operating smoke detectors.

Doyon was carrying envelopes at the fair, distributing the tenants’ security deposits so that they could use them toward new living quarters.

At least one couple had several options for a new apartment.

Jennifer Hogan and James Wiggin, who had lived in a street-level apartment, said their workplaces, Christmas Tree Shoppe and MaineGeneral Medical Center respectively, had provided financial and other assistance, so they had money to relocate.

Wiggin said his car was destroyed as well, but he had insurance and was paying a few cents a day for a rental vehicle until he could find a replacement.

Hogan and Wiggin heard someone yelling fire.

“Our windows were glowing, and it was just pouring liquid fire down,” Wiggin said.

Wiggin said he grabbed coats and blankets and his car keys as they fled the blaze, but couldn’t find their two cats.

“I think they were hiding from the smoke and fire,” Hogan said.

Other owners were luckier and reunited with their cats after the blaze.

Nancy Burrill, 58, was still ecstatic over the recovery of Merlin, who at a minimum is enjoying his second life. Burrill had spent Thursday night with friends in Mount Vernon, where she also volunteers at a stable.

“I had my wallet and my barn clothes,” she said. But with Merlin, “I got exactly what I wanted.”

She explained about his missing eye. “When he was two years old someone shot him in the head with a pellet gun. It went in at the base of his ear and out his eye,” she said.

Burrill had moved into the building from Lincoln five months ago.

“Three firemen said there was no way he’d get out. I said, ‘You don’t know my cat.'”

Her veterinarian gave her some antibiotics to help the cat ward off any problems resulting from the experience.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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